Lawsuit revived against fire departments in firefighter’s death in 2002 house fire
A New York State appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit against the Manlius (NY) and Pompey Hill (NY) fire departments in the death of a volunteer firefighter battling a Pompey house fire in 2002.
The state Supreme Court Appellate Division in Rochester – in a 4-1 split decision – concluded the law granting personal immunity to volunteer firefighters does not apply to the fire departments themselves or to department officials.
The lawsuit stems from the death of Fayetteville (NY) Firefighter Timothy Lynch in a fire March 7, 2002, at a home on Sweet Road in Pompey. Manlius (NY) Firefighter John Ginocchetti also died in that blaze.
Lynch’s widow, Donna Prince Lynch, sued Onondaga County, New York and then county Fire Coordinator Mike Waters in 2003. The county responded to that lawsuit by suing the Pompey Hill Fire District, the Pompey Hill Fire Department, Assistant Chiefs Richard Abbott and Mark Kovalewski, the village of Manlius, the Manlius Fire Department, Deputy Chief Raymond Dill and homeowner Joseph Messina.
State Supreme Court Justice Donald Greenwood dismissed the claims against the fire departments and the chiefs in 2009 based on the immunity argument.
But the Rochester appellate court ruled last week that Greenwood erred. The majority concluded the section of state General Municipal Law granting immunity to volunteer firefighters in the performance of their duty did not apply to the fire departments or the department officials.
The plain language of the statute reflects the Legislature’s purpose in enacting that law was “first, to immunize volunteer firefighters from civil liability for ordinary negligence and, second, to shift liability for such negligence to the fire districts that employ them,” the majority wrote.
The court rejected the fire departments’ contention – and Greenwood’s earlier decision – that the law only allows fire departments to be held liable for volunteer firefighters’ negligent operation of motor vehicles. The court concluded the Legislature – in enacting the statute in 1934 – meant to expand, not restrict, the liability of fire districts.
“In other words, the Legislature sought to assure that there would be some liability on the part of the fire districts where previously there had been some doubt,” the majority wrote.
Justice Eugene Fahey, in a lone dissent, agreed with Greenwood that the immunity law applied to the departments and their officials as well as the volunteer firefighters. He concluded the fact the Legislature carved out a motor vehicle exception indicated the lawmakers’ intent was to grant immunity to the fire districts in the first place.
This is the second time Greenwood’s rulings in the case have been modified or overturned on appeal.
In 2007, Greenwood dismissed outright the Lynch lawsuit. But in February 2008, the appellate division reinstated the part that charged a violation of General Municipal Law and accused Waters of failing to comply with the state’s emergency command and control system.
The appellate court concluded then that there was an issue for trial as to whether Waters had a supervisory role at the fire scene.
The county responded to that ruling by suing the fire departments and their officials. The county contends that if there was any negligence on Waters’ part, it was less than that of the fire departments and their officials and those defendants should pay any damages.
Because there was no appeal of Greenwood’s separate decision dropping the case against Dill, he remains out of the lawsuit under the appellate court ruling.
- NIOSH LODD REPORT HERE
- A must read from Firerescue1.com from 2008 with original lawsuit details: N.Y. chiefs, departments, homeowner ‘negligent’ in 2002 LODDs HERE
- http://www.volunteerfd.org/article/400128/ (about the Fire)
- http://www.firehouse.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-39506.html (Firehouse.com Forum)
NIOSH REPORT SUMMARY
First-Floor Collapse During Residential Basement Fire Claims the Life of Two Fire Fighters (Career and Volunteer) and Injures a Career Fire Fighter Captain – New York
On March 7, 2002, a 28-year-old male volunteer fire fighter (Victim #1) and a 41-year-old male career fire fighter (Victim #2) died after becoming trapped in the basement. Victim #1 manned the nozzle while Victim #2 provided backup on the handline as they entered the house. After entering the structure, the floor collapsed, trapping both victims in the basement. A career fire fighter captain joining the fire fighters near the time of the collapse was injured trying to rescue one of the fire fighters. Crew members responded immediately and attempted to rescue the victims; however, the heat and flames overcame both victims and eliminated any rescue efforts from the garage entrance. NIOSH investigators concluded that, to minimize the risk of similar occurrences, fire departments should
- ensure that the Incident Commander is clearly identified as the only individual responsible for the overall coordination and direction of all activities at an inciden
- ensure that the Incident Commander conveys strategic decisions to all suppression crews on the fireground and continually reevaluates the fire condition
- ensure that Incident Command conducts an initial size-up of the incident before initiating fire fighting efforts and continually evaluates the risk versus gain during operations at an incident
- ensure that fire fighters from the ventilation crew and the attack crew coordinate their efforts
- ensure that fire fighters report conditions and hazards encountered to their team leader or Incident Commander
- ensure fire fighters are trained to recognize the danger of operating above a fire
A report from the New York State Department Of Labor details several problems that happened the night of a fire that claimed the lives of firefighters John Ginochetti and Timothy Lynch. The Pompey Hill Fire Department was issued three citations for problems with training, equipment, and communication.
Included in the report was a detailed listing of the events that happened on the night of March 7, 2002.
7:10 p.m.: 911 receives call about a fire in the basement of a home at 2841 Sweet Road, Pompey Hill.
7:20 p.m.: Manlius Fire Department responds to the fire.
7:28 p.m.: The assistant fire chief on scene reports that smoke is showing in the first floor of the building and that the fire is in the basement.
7:30 p.m.: Firefighters enter the building through the basement and garage.
7:37 p.m.: Fire has burned for 25 minutes.
7:45 p.m.: Gino Ginochetti and TJ Lynch start to ventilate the roof. The assistant fire chief says, “Hang tight, the fire is pretty well knocked down.”
7:47 p.m.: Command refuses 700 gallons of water offered.
7:51 p.m.: Onondaga County Fire Coordinator Mike Waters arrives on scene. Waters broke out the windows on the east side of the building.
7:53 p.m.: A team enters the basement, then discovers that there is no water pressure in their water hoses. The pump operator discovers that the valve system has failed and water will not flow.
7:58 p.m.: Fire has been burning for 48 minutes with no water being directed on it.
7:59 p.m.: Waters orders three firefighters, including Ginochetti and Lynch into the building through the garage and onto the first floor. At this time, both Ginochetti and Lynch fall through the floor and into the basement. The third firefighter, Brian Stevens, tried to pull Ginochetti from the basement. He then had to back away from the fire, which had flashed over. Stevens received burns to the face. Mike Waters entered the building to try and rescue the men, but had to be pulled out when the entire garage went up in flames. Crews outside started to direct water into the area of the collapse.
The report also notes that there were several violations with:
-respiratory protection standards
-number of training hours for the Incident Commander
The direct cause of deaths for Ginochetti and Lynch was found to be a combination of a ten foot fall into the basement and the smoke and heat exposure to both men.
Indirect causes included:
-Command at the fire scene did not maintain communication with attack teams assigned to do interior attack. The team assigned to the back of the building did not maintain communication.
-Command refused the 700 gallons of water offered, and instead said that the fire was under control.
-Communication problems between the teams meant that one group didn’t know whether or not the other had entered the building.
-Command gave orders without knowledge of the fire or the building, although the home owner was on scene to provide the information.
-Pompey Hill Fire Department procedures were deficient, including backup and rescue teams.